Cold War-era WR: misterije organizma (WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Dušan Makavejev, 1971) sets West against East with two opening sequences. In the first, Tuli Kupferberg shambles into a New York street and prepares for a street performance. Kupferberg was a member of rock group The Fugs, whose biliously sarcastic songs bark over several key sequences of the film (“Kill for Peace”, “I’m Gonna Kill Myself over Your Dead Body”). Kupferberg changes into a tattered orange jumpsuit, of the kind worn by convicted criminals in the US, implying that he has escaped from a penal institution (perhaps the penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich – the “WR” of the title – died in custody) and has been on the run for some time. His outfit is completed by an infantry helmet and a machine gun. Kupferberg’s criminal/soldier/fascist is in the same mode as William Klein’s titular ‘superhero’ in Mr. Freedom (1968), a hyper-manifestation of the violent, militaristic values promoted in the US during World War II, the conformist 1950s and the then-raging Vietnam War. The deliberately shocking line in “Kill for Peace” – “The only gook an American can trust is a gook that’s got his yellow head bust” – alludes to attitudes expressed by US Army commanding officers in Emile de Antonio’s blistering Vietnam documentary In the Year of the Pig ). Throughout WR, Kupferberg patrols the streets and footbridges of New York, including the financial district, masturbating his rifle with a manic stare.
This terrifying yet clownish introduction to a West dominated by the US – in an outdoor street scene – is followed by the credits sequence, filmed in a Belgrade interior. Three young people huddle together: Milena (Milena Dravić), a woman whose intellectual commitment is signalled by wearing glasses; her ‘free-spirited’, physical, instinctual, non-intellectual roommate, Jagoda (Jagoda Kaloper), who spends most of the film screwing; and her current lover, a slovenly soldier (Miodrag Andrić). The sexual acrobatics of Jagoda and the soldier under a photograph of the smiling Reich will contrast later in the film with solitary Milena, spouting sterile Reich-influenced philosophy. It is a philosophy that Makavejev appears to endorse – Milena denounces the decrepitude of a communism that cannot put human sexuality at its centre, thereby inflicting psychosomatic illness on its citizenry – but it is a philosophy embodied by Jagoda rather than the idealistic Milena, who lives in her head rather than her body (the sexism of this contrast is obvious). Milena first figuratively then literally loses her head over a series of male gurus – Reich, Chairman Mao and finally the dangerously repressed Stalinist skater Vladimir Ilyich (Ivica Vidović).
In this credit sequence, however, Milena, Jagoda and the soldier face the viewer as they manipulate an egg yolk. No doubt there are all sorts of symbolic reasons for the egg,1 but, first and foremost, it is a tactile, messy, unruly substance that breaks its bounds and cannot be reconstituted. It contrasts with a later squishy substance: the plaster within which artist Nancy Godfrey encases and mummifies the erect penis of Screw magazine editor Jim Buckley in probably the film’s most (in)famous sequence. Documenting a situation with little claim to subtlety, Makavejev subtly undermines the apolitical ‘sexual liberation’ that would be the main legacy of the US counterculture. The penis may be celebrated as a ‘life force’, but its rigid resin avatar paradoxically corresponds to the gooey yolk which, having broken its shell, loses all its life-giving properties.
WR is frequently called a “collage film”, because it admixes disparate elements: Makavejev’s own material shot in the US and Belgrade between 1968 and 1971; ‘real’ and ‘faked’ documentaries (including harrowing images taken in a psychiatric institution); photographs; stock footage; dance and vocal performances; cinéma vérité interviews; docudrama reconstructions – all intercut with a fictional narrative and a 1946 hagiography of Stalin, Klyatva (The Vow, Mikheil Chiaureli). And this is only what’s on screen – the soundtrack includes natural sound; communist hymns, folk music and protest rock; interviewees’ speech and external commentary.
The variant of collage known as photomontage was originally invented by the Berlin Dada group towards the end of World War I. By combining, superimposing, tearing and rearranging photographic materials of differing provenance, scale and texture, they mobilised in one image a cacophony of competing and contradictory visual narratives to counteract the unitary, discredited imperial narratives that had generated the war’s mechanised slaughter in the first place. That political, confrontational, satiric aspect of collage, of photomontage as an aggressive assertion of truth(s) in a climate of totalitarian lies, is continued by Makavejev in WR, redirected at the dominant Cold War ideologies of US capitalism and Soviet communism, whose representative images are dismembered and rearranged on the paper of socialist but non-aligned Yugoslavia, caught haplessly between the two.2 That Makavejev hit his targets was proven by the film’s being banned in Yugoslavia, the director being indicted and exiling himself to the West, and the effective stalling of his career.
In another way, to call WR a collage film is a tautology – any film of more than one shot and/or with an image track is some sort of collage film. It might be more useful to situate WR in another Dadaist form that was resuscitated by the 1960s counterculture: performance art. Besides their thematic interplay, what the film’s two opening sequences share is an emphasis on frontally presented performances before an implied audience – the whole film is essentially a compendium of such ‘attractions’. Where photomontage cut up and reassembled static bodies, performance art tended to unmoor bodies in circumscribed yet unpredictable situations of violence and endurance. Its 1960s variants ultimately derived from the Theatre of Cruelty of dissident Surrealist Antonin Artaud. Sub-rational rituals enacted by the performers were designed to have a visceral effect on the viewer, to purge body and soul of the received ideologies that were impairing physical and spiritual health. In other words, Artaud in performance paralleled Reich’s work in psychology and WR is Makavejev’s attempt to fuse both. His experiments with performance would reach their apogee/nadir in Sweet Movie (1974), a black comedy featuring the Viennese Actionists, that audience-baiting association of excreting exhibitionists. Sweet Movie is Makavejev’s cry of despair at the failure of the counterculture he celebrated with qualification in WR. The earlier film, for all its blind spots, remains engaging, invigorating and perversely joyful, a testament to ideological and aesthetic roads not taken.
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WR: Mysteries of the Organism (WR: misterije organizma, 1971 Yugoslavia/West Germany 85 mins)
Prod Co: Neoplanta Film, Telepool Prod: Dušan Makavejev Dir: Dušan Makavejev Scr: Dušan Makavejev Phot: Aleksandar Petković, Pega Popović Ed: Ivanka Vukasović Prod Des: Dragoljub Ivkov Mus: Bojana Marijan
Cast: Milena Dravić, Ivica Vidović, Jagoda Kaloper, Tuli Kupferberg, Jackie Curtis, Miodrag Andrić
- J.C. Cooper’s list includes “the life principle”, “potentiality”, “the germ of all creation”, “the primordial matriarchal world of chaos”, “the womb”, “all seminal existence”, “the perfect state of unified opposites”, “resurrection” and “hope” – several of which seem relevant to WR; see J.C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols (London: Thames & Hudson, 1978), p. 60. ↩
- Makavejev’s return to the Dadaist roots of photomontage is a rejection of the Soviet collage he grew up with, which mirrored, promoted and yet occluded the more vicious rearrangements of bodies undertaken by the state. ↩